The Tuesday launch of Apple Music follows a familiar formula: let competitors test the market for a product, then get in there with the sleek, well-designed Apple version. Companies such as Spotify and Pandora have offered their own streaming subscription services for a while now; it just makes sense for Apple to see how many occasional iTunes album and single buyers it can convince to sign up for unlimited music streaming at $10 per month (or, better yet, persuade ’em to pay $15 per month to sign up the whole family).
Yet while this strategy has worked in the past for Apple, most notably with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, it’s less clear to me out of the gate whether it will fare as well with Apple Music, which it built after acquiring Beats Music.
In large part that’s because Apple Music feels too cluttered, in both its visual design and overabundance of features. Open the app for the first time, as I did on my iPhone 6, and it starts getting to know your musical tastes by presenting you with a selection of genres, each contained within a bright red bubble (a design holdover from the Beats Music service). You’re instructed to tap a bubble once to indicate a genre you like, twice to show it’s one you love, and press and hold your finger on those you can’t stand.
Ugh, really? Within the first 10 seconds, I was annoyed by how long it took to dismiss things like experimental and classical music.
I had to follow the same process to select several artists I liked, though the ones I was presented with initially were mostly ones I didn’t actually like, aside from the Kinks and Elton John. You can tap “more artists” near the bottom of the screen to get more choices, yet while this helped the curation process it was slow going, as I had to wait for the app to add a few more artist bubbles each time. Also, new bubbles emerge from each side of the screen and all the bubbles slowly shift around on their own, so the more artists I chose as favorites, the more tricky it was to add more to my collection.
Apple Music makes music suggestions with input from human helpers. Yet the service’s initial music suggestions in its “For You” section were bland and unhelpful. First, there was a playlist called “Cinnamon, Spice, and Everything Nice” that was full of “songs to keep you company in the kitchen.” (Apple, are you trying to tell me something?) The list included a few artists I do actually like—Elton John, Madonna, and Taylor Swift—but also many more I can’t stand, like Rod Stewart, Phil Collins, the Backstreet Boys, Wilson Phillips, and Celine Dion. And the albums listed at the bottom of the page were a ho-hum mix of ones I already know well (Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere) and others I wasn’t that excited about (Paul McCartney & Wings’s Band on the Run).
I went back and tried to help the app out by selecting more artists that I like. This seemed to help—when I refreshed the “For You” tab I got some decent playlist and album suggestions. A “Britney Spears: Collaborations” playlist? Sure, I might listen to Britney but wouldn’t think to put that specific list together. And Bruno Mars’s Unorthodox Jukebox album? Good idea; I haven’t listened to it in a long time. There were some other good suggestions, too, like Robyn and Fleetwood Mac playlists—very different types of music, but both artists I’m not that familiar with and would like to get to know better.
I was intrigued by the “Connect” tab, which is kind of like a mini Twitter feed for musicians you “follow” within Apple Music (you automatically follow artists whose music is in your library, and you can add more if you want). Connect posts from artists include things like messages, songs, and videos—a 26-second clip from FKA twigs shows the choregoraphy for one of her songs, for instance. That’s neat, and you don’t have to pay to see artists’ posts on Connect. Yet for now, at least, it doesn’t feel more exciting than following artists on Twitter and Instagram.
Of course, the main point of Apple Music is discovering and listening to music. This isn’t always easy, though.
If you already know an artist or song you want to look for, no problem—just tap the magnifying glass at the top of the screen and start typing. You can tap just below the search box to clarify if you want to search Apple Music or your own music collection.
A lot of the time, though, I don’t quite know what I want to hear, or I know a genre or a song that I want to start with, but can’t decide where to go after that. Apple Music offers plenty of options for going from one point to another, but it can be confusing to figure out how to do this. Should you hit the ellipses to the left of any artist, album, or song to start a station associated with that? Build a playlist? Check out the “New” tab that shows me everything from James Taylor to De La Soul on one screen? Just sit back and listen to its new 24-hour radio station, Beats 1?
For me, the easiest and quickest way to discover new music that I will probably like has always been by finding suggestions based on things I already listen to. I do this in person when asking for suggestions, and my opinion of a music service depends in part on how well it makes connections between artists.
Apple Music makes this feature more complicated (though potentially more specific) by tying “sounds like so-and-so” suggestions to album, rather than artist, pages. That means you can’t just look up an artist like Madonna and see who Apple Music believes is similar. You have to go to the page of a Madonna album like The Immaculate Collection and scroll down to see other albums you may also like.
Admittedly, I got some good suggestions, though I found it annoying to get to them. For Florence + The Machine’s newest album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, Apple Music suggested I try Kicker by Zella Day. I’d never heard of her, but I gave it a listen, and liked what I heard—the first few songs were reminiscent of Florence and of Ellie Goulding. And when I looked up Man Man’s On Oni Pond, one of the suggestions was Mister Heavenly’s Out of Love, which is dead on and one of my all-time favorite albums.
Smartly, Apple Music does allow you to save songs for offline listening, which is great if you want to put together a playlist for a trip or a hike or anything where you’re not confident you’ll have good network access. However, it’s also key to remember that should you ever decide to leave Apple Music’s paid streaming service behind, you’ll also have to say good-bye to those tunes unless you want to buy them (and yes, Apple includes a link to get songs and albums on Apple Music from iTunes).
It’s worth trying out Apple Music, if only because it’s currently free for three months. You may get some cool new music recommendations. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself having to work to navigate to them, though.